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Unconscious Bias in Science

Dear Joseph,

I work with scientific communications. My team leader dismisses any scientific paper that doesn’t agree with her beliefs or the company’s messaging, regardless of the quality of the research. On top of that, she always interrupts us when we’re trying to present the objective view of existing science on a topic, so we’re unable to explain our thoughts or our perspective. How can we get her to actually listen to us?

Weird Science

Dear Weird Science,

I have a suggestion for how to create some new agreements with your team leader. But before I get to that, may I point out something I notice in how you asked your question?

Your general concern seems to be that your team leader is bringing inappropriate biases to what should be an objective decision-making process. I urge you to examine yourself as well for hidden prejudice. The most pernicious kind of subjectivity comes from those who think they are objective. And I see hints in the four sentences you wrote that your biases might be part of the mix.

Those hints include your repeated use of absolute language that is typically a distortion (“any paper” and “always” interrupts). In addition, you frame what are likely your own inferences as facts. For example, concluding that her motivation for dismissing a paper is that she prioritizes her own beliefs over the quality of the research. By contrast, you characterize your sole motivation as attempting to apply an “objective view of existing science.” If I take all of this at face value, I envision meetings where a dictatorial ideologue relentlessly oppresses humble and honest scientists in order to ensure the only messages that survive are self-serving propaganda.

Now let me hasten to add that this extreme vision is sometimes the reality. Maybe she is precisely what you paint her to be. I call attention to the way you present your concern because I find that my own language gives me a flashlight into the recesses of my own motivations. If this thought intrigues you, here are some questions to reflect on:

  1. How might your own beliefs be coloring your advocacy?
  2. Could some of your resentments be about personal insult rather than professional pride?
  3. Are there times when you overstate your data? Do you sometimes come to a conversation with a predetermined opinion, then back into arguments that support it? Even a little? We often resent most that which we most resemble.
  4. Are there some of her rejections that bother you more than others? If so, why? Do you rate the quality of research or a manuscript higher because of feelings about an author? A conclusion? A body of science you feel loyalty or affection for?

The goal in asking these questions is to help you get past the self-righteousness implicit in your question. I find that if I have crafted a story in my mind that makes me the righteous victim and others the premeditated villains, I am likely to have little influence with them. To the degree you can come to see her sins as temptations you also occasionally succumb to, you’ll humanize her and amplify your prospects of a healthy conversation.

Having come off the high horse a bit, I’d suggest you have a conversation with her about purpose and principle.

One of the best ways to resolve conflict is to transcend it. Often when the particulars of a disagreement are insoluble (Should we vacation on the beach or in the mountains?), there are higher principles and purposes that can lead to ready agreement (Can we agree that it’s more important that we are both happy rather than one of us getting our first choice?).

I suggest you find a time when you are not debating a specific paper. Open the conversation by acknowledging frequent conflict about individual submissions. And, if you’ve found any transgressions in your own approach to those conflicts from the advice above, acknowledge that as well.

You might say, for example, “I experience our decision making as more contentious than I think it needs to be. I know I’ve contributed to that. There are times when I let my ego trump my objectivity. I feel insulted and defensive, and that’s my stuff. And I suspect I’m not the only one. I suggest we step away from specific papers for a few minutes and discuss the purpose of our publications, and the selection principles we can all support. My hope is that if we can all commit to those, then police each other on applying them, we will reduce unnecessary conflict.”

It could well be that in the conversation you realize your team leader has an unapologetic commitment to supporting only research that supports the company’s interests. If so, you have a decision to make.

If, on the other hand, the conversation leads to a list of purposes and principles that you feel ethically aligned with, you will then have a context within which to challenge decisions that don’t fit those agreed-upon principles.

Best wishes,

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5 thoughts on “Unconscious Bias in Science”

  1. Reader

    This was a great response with respect to encouraging reflection in the “aggrieved” party to possibly re-frame the difficult situation. However, I wish there was more discussion in the event “It could well be that in the conversation you realize your team leader has an unapologetic commitment to supporting only research that supports the company’s interests. If so, you have a decision to make.” What decision? What would be advisable to do in that case? I find these articles and Joseph’s perspective to be really helpful.

    1. Roland

      Hello Joseph,
      This is a super thoughtful and thought provoking reply. Thank you for initiating my brain to reflect on my behavior when I am interacting with others who tend to frustrate me. I am pretty good at asking self to think about my contributions to the problem. These questions will help me improve my thought process.

      Thanks again,
      Roland Hoskins

  2. Janet Crawford

    Very thoughtful response. I’m curious what the writer meant to allude to in the signature line, Weird Science. There’s the 1985 movie in which two nerdy boys conjure a perfect woman, Frankenstein style. There’s also a possible allusion to W.E.I.R.D. Science (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic), a common acronym used by critics to illuminate the prevailing bias in academic research.

  3. rina reynolds

    A very thoughtful response with good insight as to what the problems may be. Thank you.

  4. Jerry Hutchins

    Yes, a thoughtful reply. After considering his/her own unconscious biases, I thought it might be useful to ask the team leader if she perceived biases in what what he/she submitted or suggested. Your point of discussing purpose is excellent. Perhaps the true purpose of the team IS to support the company’s goals and objectives through its messaging.

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